doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: mcat

On this day …

I don’t normally look at the “On this day” posts on Facebook. I don’t normally spend much time on Facebook at all. But today, on a whim, I did. This came up, a 5-year-old memory:

As did another post from a dear friend exactly a year later, which I’ve copied below. If I remember correctly, the first sentence, in quotation marks, is her quoting me; the second sentence is her reaction to my words:

“Holy shit. That is an acceptance letter.”

Discussing the MCAT on this day in 2013, and a medical school acceptance letter on this day in 2014 …

I’ve come a long way since then. I’m now discussing medical school graduation (in 13 months!) and where I will apply for my psychiatry residency (in 5 months!).

Thanks to all of you who have helped make this possible, and to all of you who have followed me on the journey. I couldn’t have done it without you.

MCAT2015: Here’s the Scoop

The MCAT is my friend.

That was my mantra for three months, the amount of time I spent studying for this infamous medical school entrance exam. While content is clearly important, so is the mental component of this test. It wasn’t until I conquered my major fears and anxieties that my scores really soared, from upper 20s to mid 30s. (To answer the unspoken question, I got a nicely balanced 33: 10PS/12BS/11VR.)

With the new MCAT2015 approaching, I get the sense that this mental component continues to be key. People I have talked to seem more afraid than ever of the MCAT. While a healthy respect for this exam is important, fear will get you nowhere. It only makes things worse, actually. While I certainly never plan on taking the MCAT again (whew!), I am learning what I can about new exam to help those of you who are where I was a year or two ago—trying to make it into medical school. The purpose of this post, then, is to demystify the MCAT2015 using information from official sources (everything here comes straight from the AAMC) and to point you toward trustworthy resources to help you prepare.

Why change?

The current MCAT exam (last test administration date: January 23, 2015) has been around, in more or less the same form, since 1991. A lot has changed since then, say people at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)—in science, medicine, and in standardized testing. So the AAMC put together a committee in late 2008, called MR5. This committee gathered survey information from more than 2,700 medical school and university faculty, medical students, and residents, as well as compiling data from outreach events and other panels. The result was a set of recommendations that became the MCAT2015. The new test will be divided into four sections. Click on the title of the section to access the AAMC’s description of what the section will cover.

  1. Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  2. Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  3. Psychological, Social, & Biological Foundations of Behavior
  4. Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills

Rather than focus on requiring specific courses, the new exam aims to focus on competencies. These competencies include topics in the biological and physical sciences of course, but extend to the social sciences as well—and this is new MCAT content. Each of these competencies aligns with what the AAMC calls a “Building Block” for learning in medical school. In other words, there is supposed to be a direct link between what you learn as you prepare for the MCAT and what you will learn in medical school.

In addition to these 10 foundational concepts (aka competencies), AAMC expects students to have mastered some specific Scientific & Inquiry Reasoning Skills. These include (1) knowledge of scientific principles, (2) scientific reasoning and problem solving, (3) reasoning about the design and execution of research, (4) data-based and statistical reasoning, and (5) general mathematical concepts and techniques.

What’s the big deal?

The big deal, for one, is that this exam will cover more content. In addition to the concepts usually taught in general chemistry, general biology, physics, and organic chemistry, content from the first semester of introductory biochemistry, psychology, and sociology is tested.

The MCAT2015, clocking in at 7 hours and 30 minutes of seat time, is a marathon exam. It’s 2 hours longer than the old MCAT, in fact. That requires dedication to prepare for, both mentally and physically (you think I’m joking—I’m not).

In addition to content and length changes, there are also changes in administration. While AAMC says there will be the same number of seats available for the MCAT2015, they will be spread across fewer dates (14 testing dates to be exact), with most test administrations on Saturday or Sunday. All tests now start at 8 a.m., and there are no more double-day administrations. (There used to be administrations in both the morning and the afternoon on the same day—no more with MCAT2015.) Click here for MCAT2015 test dates.

How is MCAT2015 scored?

According to the AAMC, MCAT2015 score reports will be more comprehensive and useful. Along with a total score (ranging from 472 to 528), there will be four section scores and several interpretation tools. These include:

  • Percentile rank for each score (applicable to THAT year’s test only)
  • Confidence band for each score (reliability and accuracy of the score)
  • Score profile (to highlight strengths and weaknesses of the test taker)

This new scoring system, says Scott Oppler, PhD, director of MCAT Development and Psychometrics, is “designed to draw attention to applicants who might otherwise be overlooked.” It does this, he explains, by highlighting the middle of scoring pack rather than the top third. (I’m still not quite clear on how this works, but I’m not a standardized test designer, or an ADCOM.)

In the beginning, percentile ranks will be based on a small number of test administrations (simply because there is no other data). This, and all the new analysis being done, will slightly delay scores for people who take the test first in April/May. Although AAMC is offering an incentive to those people: a $150 Amazon gift card.

Where are those resources?!

Right here:

  • MCAT2015 Offical AAMC site for the new MCAT
  • Which exam? A site dedicated to help students decide between the old and new MCAT tests (for those who have the option to take either exam)
  • What’s on the MCAT2015 Exam? An interactive site put together by the AAMC that lists the competencies, links to the content you should know, has videos and practice questions, lots of good stuff
  • Khan Academy partnership AAMC teamed up with the great people at Khan Academy (yes, that’s an endorsement) to create content to help students prepare for the new exam; there are free videos and tutorials, as well as practice questions
  • Resources for Administrators This site is geared toward administratos (like pre-health advisors), but it’s publicly accessible content, and you may find it helpful
  • the e-mail address for questions related to the new MCAT exam

In addition, AAMC says a full-length practice test will be available this fall, MCAT2015 Study Sets (question compilations) available early 2015, and the Official MCAT2015 Practice Test #1 available fall 2015.

Given that no one has even taken the exam yet, it’s far too early to make any sort of judgment about it. The fact is, it’s coming. And AAMC’s goal is for it to last for 15 years. The best thing to do is prepare yourself as best you can. And as always, remember: Take a breath.

Long-Overdue Update

Wow, I can’t believe how long it’s been since I posted here. So very much has happened. I’m almost not sure where to start. So if this becomes Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness writing, please pardon me; you’ll understand, I hope.

1. MCAT. My score (33 total: 10/PS, 12/BS, 11/VR) was not quite what I’d hoped it to be. My goal had been a 35. But it’s a decent score, more than a decent score, and with my GPA, ECs, LORs, etc. it makes me a very attractive candidate.

2. Applications.
– 25 schools in the primary round
– 23 secondaries (2 only give you secondaries if you get an interview, and I didn’t/haven’t)
– 4 outright rejections (but that leaves 21 still considering me)
– 3 interviews, 1 down, 2 to go (and the next is this coming Wednesday, 10/16, so wish me luck)

3. Money. This has been a sore spot, and a struggle, for me for the last couple of years, as I have written about here frequently. Paycheck to paycheck, sometimes not quite making it and having to ask for money (not something I like to do). Not because I’m a slacker, but because I took a very low-paying lab job for the experience, and my Joint Commission Resources freelance work (which is great pay) just couldn’t make up the difference. I had no idea how I was going to pay for applications (which, thus far, have cost about $3,500, and this is without any long distance interviews). Thankfully, I have some great people in my court, who have helped me make this happen. And then, I got a …

4. New job. Yep. Not that I was dissatisfied, work-wise, with my old one. Although it was only part time, and I didn’t have benefits (and my current benefits were to run out August 31, 2013). I interviewed for several positions, and finally landed one in Peds/Neonatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Full time, higher pay, and benefits (which kicked in September 1 – talk about good timing). It’s been a great learning experience thus far. I do a lot of mice work as I did before, but LOTS more surgeries. And this time on itsy bitsy mice (hence neonatology). Cannulating the trachea of a 5 gram mouse is definitely a challenge in dexterity, but one I am mastering. We’re researching bronchopulmonary dysplasia and BPD-associated pulmonary hypertension, so it’s again lung-related which is interesting. One of my PIs is an MD/PhD, the other is an MD. It’s been good to talk to them both about academic medicine (they also do clinical work at the NU NICU), given that they took different medical degree paths to get to a combined practice/research situation.

Well, that’s a good summary for now. I’ll try to be better about updating …

My MCAT Rules

“Take a breath” is my #1 MCAT rule.

Five days and counting …

I’m taking AAMC #11 (aka “yet another MCAT practice test”) today. But before I do, I wanted to share some MCAT “rules” that I’ve developed for myself. This was at the suggestion of my dear friend (and my MCAT coach). Before every practice test, I read them over, and rewrite them as well to drill them into my head. They have nothing to do with content – 5 minutes before an exam, you either know it or you don’t in terms of material. These rules have to do with mindset, which for me has been a huge battle.

If anyone else has rules or positive thoughts that they think before an exam, please share!


1. Take a breath.
2. Trust your gut.
3. Take this seriously.
4. Focus.
5. Maintain tempo:
  • Presto (PS)
  • Largo (VR)
  • Adagio (BS)
6. Think NOW – not ahead, and not behind.
7. Read every word carefully:
  • Passages
  • Questions
  • Answer choices
8. Eliminate wrong answers.
9. Estimate.
10. Guess and move on after a minute.
11. Keep calm and carry on.
12. Think positive, not negative thoughts.
13. Channel confidence, not fear or doubt.

Battle of the (MCAT) Books

Which MCAT review books are the best? Ask 10 people and you will probably get 10 different answers. In this post, I will share my own experiences with two MCAT review series, The Princeton Review and Examkrackers.

Let the battle of the books begin!

So, back to my question: Which MCAT review books are best? My answer: It depends. This is not a cop-out. I would not be writing this review if I didn’t have an opinion on this issue. Allow me to explain my perspective. My hope, by the way, is that this will help some of my fellow pre-meds make a more educated decision about which books to use (or not use).
A caveat: I have not tried all the available MCAT review books. In addition to Examkrackers and The Princeton Review, there are also books from Kaplan and The Berkely Review (among others). I am going to limit my words here to personal experience, though. If you want to know about Kaplan or TBR, I am certain there are other online reviews.
In the beginning, I had a definite bias toward Examkrackers (EK). Perhaps in part because I am always a fan of the underdog, and compared to The Princeton Review (TPR), EK is an underdog company. It certainly helped that a dear friend, now an OMS-3 (yay!), gave me the entire EK set, so there was no financial investment on my part. Free = good, especially when you’re a broke pre-med. However, I did wind up buying some of TPR’s books to supplement my EK material. And I wish I had done so sooner. To explain why, I am going to present what I see as the pros and cons of each series:
  1. Brevity. The EK subject books are short and to the point. This is a definite plus if you are already strong on content and need only a brief review of concepts, equations, etc.
  2. Passage-based selections. For every chapter, there is a 30-minute, passage-based “in-class exam” at the back of the book. The plus here is that the exams are passage based. This is how the majority of the MCAT is structured, so practicing with passages is the best way to improve your test-taking (which is honestly one of my biggest issues right now).
  3. Location of answers. This may sound silly, but I saw this as a definite positive – all of the answers to the chapter questions (and there are several sets within each chapter, although these are NOT passage based, FYI) are at the back of the book. Some may find this a pain, flipping back and forth, but I liked it because then you’re not having to cover up the answer (and you’re not tempted to LOOK at the answer before finishing the problem!).
  4. MORE practice questions. In addition to the content books, EK offers “1,001 Questions” books for each content area. These books are arranged by subject (i.e., for the gen chem book, there is a set of questions on gases, another on thermodynamics, etc.). This lets you hone your weakest content areas. There is also a “101 passages” in verbal reasoning, which I own but haven’t used yet. What I’ve heard that this is perhaps the most helpful of EK’s question books, but I can’t verify that personally.
  1. Brevity. I know I said this was a plus. But remember? I said it all depends. In this instance, the brevity is good if your content mastery is strong. I was pretty rusty, especially on physics, given that my pre-reqs are from a couple of years ago. I needed more content help than EK had to offer. So for me, this was a con.
  2. Spotty answer explanations. There ARE answer explanations, which is good (obviously). But they really vary in their completeness. Some are a paragraph long, while others are a word or two. There were some questions I missed that I really wanted some more help in understanding the “why.”
The Princeton Review
  1. Thorough content coverage. TPR does a great job, in my opinion, of reviewing content – better than EK. I found TPR’s explanations more clear, understandable, and complete for someone who really needed a boost on the actual material.
  2. Online content. This is an awesome feature of TPR, and really makes it worth getting the books, in my opinion. Each book comes with online access to 2 complete practice exams, bunches of discrete practice questions, and many passage-based questions as well. It’s all done online, and simulates the MCAT in many ways (such as allowing you to strike through answer choices you have decided to eliminate). TPR’s Web site keeps track of your scores and lets you monitor your progress, which is a neat feature.
  3. Detailed answer explanations. I found TPR’s answer explanations much more like the AAMC’s. TPR goes into both the correct answer, and why it is correct, as well as why the other choices are incorrect. EK sometimes does this, but not consistently.
  4. Passage-based selections. Like EK, TPR has both discrete and passage-based questions. A plus for the same reason listed in my EK evaluation.
  1. Location of answers. While I like how EK had the answers in the back, TPR did it differently, putting the answers right below the questions. I had to constantly cover up the answer with a half-sheet of paper, and found this incredibly annoying. Silly? Maybe, but it’s a functionality issue, and I found the answers distracting when they were within the text.
  2. Format consistency. I found this strange – the content area books had different formatting, some of which I found very distracting. In the biology book, there are smatterings of questions within the text, and these are footnoted. The answer to each question is in a footnote at the bottom of the page. I absolutely hated that. And the bio book is the only one that does this. As a former textbook editor, I think someone dropped the ball here.
I must, of course, also address price. The EK content set (about $115 on Amazon) is a bit less expensive than TPR ($30-$40 per content book; they don’t seem to be sold as a set, at least not on Amazon). BUT – what this doesn’t take into account is that included with TPR’s content books is all that online practice, while for EK, you have to purchase the 1,001 questions books separately (about $20 apiece). So it seems to be just about a wash in terms of money. A tip: If you have access to a good public library system, you may even be able to get some of these books (to borrow) for free. Just be aware that come MCAT time, those books will be in high demand.
The bottom line: both EK and TPR have pros and cons. Neither is perfect. What matters is that you know what you need. And that may be different from what I need, or from what your best buddy in ochem needs. It’s all about personalizing your review process so that you can do your own best on the MCAT.
And speaking of the MCAT, I really have to get back to studying … 26 days and counting!

Choose a Focal Point: Now

When you are spinning around, or when the world is spinning around you, it’s important to have a focal point that brings you stability in the midst of the maelstrom. My mom reminded me of that a couple days ago as I related some of my MCAT struggles and anxieties to her. As a former figure skater, it makes total sense to me. During those crazy spins you see figure skaters perform for the Olympics, their trick to not passing out from dizziness is choosing a distinct and discrete place upon which to focus their vision every single time they whirl around. It’s hard to spot when they’re going around that fast, but they all do it. Their movements are graceful, beautiful, and also very intentional.

My mom’s focal point is God. I’m not a religious person, so we differ there. After she and I talked, I thought for a moment – what’s my focal point? The first thought that came to my mind is “my dream.” I quickly realized, though, that in many ways it’s my dream that is causing me so much anxiety right now, putting so much pressure on me. So, no. Then it hit me. Now. Now is my focal point – this moment in time, the present. Being present. For my life in general, and also for the MCAT. Focusing on each question as it comes, for example, not thinking about the one behind or the one ahead. Now.

Setting My Testing Tempo

I took my first MCAT practice test yesterday. I knew I wasn’t going to make my ultimate goal on the first try, but I did have a score in mind that I wanted to hit. I didn’t make it. I had a moment (maybe two, or perhaps even a few) of panic: If I couldn’t hit that lower target, how in the world was I going to get to my much higher goal? A dear friend, my MCAT “counselor,” set me straight. He reminded me that this was my first try. That you don’t achieve a lofty goal on your first try. Life doesn’t work that way – it takes practice. And more practice.

As I was a classical pianist for 10 years, he gave me a musical analogy. He asked how many times I would practice a composition while readying it for a performance or competition. “More times than I like to think about,” I told him. “This is the same,” he responded.

I know my friend is right. But it’s hard to overcome the fear that besets me when I even think about the exam, much less attempt it, given its high stakes. I feel like my whole future rides on it. So during my practice exam, even though I didn’t feel panicky, clearly I was – I finished two sections (verbal and biological sciences) with significant time remaining, indicating that I was rushing.

What I need, my MCAT counselor told me, is a tempo for each section. Again, thinking like a musician. Play every section with precision, but each at its own necessary pace. For physical sciences, I need a faster tempo, because it takes me a little longer to process the questions and I need to come up with my answers more quickly so that I finish the section. For biological sciences – and even more so for verbal – I need a consciously slower pace, so that I don’t rush. Because on those, I process the questions much more quickly, but I have a tendency to feel the need to speed through things and then make silly mistakes. Hence, here are my MCAT “tempos”:

Physical Sciences: Presto (“very fast,” 168-177 BPM)
Biological Sciences: Adagio (“slow and stately,” 55-65 BPM)
Verbal Reasoning: Largo (“broadly,” 45-50 BPM)

Next time around, I will more consciously put these tempos into practice. That, and hone my focus. Focus on the question in front of me. Not think about the previous question nor the next question. Just THAT question. Tempo and focus – those are my goals for my next practice exam, rather than a particular score. The score will come. With practice.

This Day We Fight!

I will be the first to admit that this road – the road to medical school – is not easy. This morning, just opening my MCAT book felt like a major battle. For me, it is important to find encouragement from outside of myself. Often, this encouragement comes from my friends and family. Today, LOTR helped a bit too. I have always found Aragorn’s battle speech at the Black Gate inspiring. Even more so on days like today, when everything – even the smallest thing – seems to be a battle.

Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

Choices, Choices

As I study for the MCAT, it’s difficult not to get bummed out sometimes. (A lot of times, actually.) I am a very good standardized test taker, and I did very well in all of my pre-requisites. So while I was aware that the MCAT isn’t like other standardized tests, and isn’t like a regular classroom test either, I expected I would adjust to it quickly. But it’s a lot more challenging than I expected. I am working on practice questions now, and after one especially brutal set of physics questions, the phrase “emotional bludgeoning” came to mind. That’s how I felt. I know the concepts and the equations backwards and forwards, upside down and rightside up. But when it comes to those questions, even I, who normally don’t have major test anxiety, feel panic well up inside me. Then I waste precious seconds and energy worrying, seconds and energy that I should be applying to the question at hand.

My very wise mother and I were talking about my struggles yesterday. And about her own struggles with her job, and its frustrations. She reminded me: “We always have a choice.” By that, she meant that we can choose to panic, to worry, to be negative, to let what is going on bring us down. Or we can choose another path. The path of living in the moment, of doing what we can with the time that is given us, of focusing on what we can control. This is not some naive attitude that everything will be wonderful. This is changing your attitude so that whatever situation you are dealing with – a situation which may or may not change – doesn’t rule your life.
We always have a choice. I always have a choice. You always have a choice.
keep calm mcat onAnother phrase that my mom and I frequently quote to each other is the famous British saying “Keep calm and carry on.” It’s a quotation that has become quite popular of late, with many iterations available on T-shirts, mugs, notebooks, stickers, you name it. I found one on the Internet that is quite fitting for me today.
Again, it’s making a choice – to maintain your calm, to be sure and steady, to do what you need to do. Unfortunately, unlike when choosing between steak and lobster at a restaurant, it doesn’t all end with making one choice. You have to choose again. And again. And again. But I believe it’s a choice well worth making.

In all this mad MCAT studying, I have come up with some absolutely terrible jokes (some of which I have shared here). Apparently, I have rubbed off on one of my dear friends, who is studying for the chemistry GRE right now. She told me this one today, and I couldn’t help but share it.

Hee-haw, hee-haw …

A mol of donkeys. That’s a lotta donkeys.